Now, after reading the title, you may think that I am completely opposed to topical sermons. Not true. At Redemption, we have used topical series several times already in our short time as a church. We’ve done a 4 week Christmas series, a 6 week ecclesiology study, and a 4 week series on revelation, how God speaks today. So, I am not against topical sermons, but I believe there are some inherent dangers in the way that many of them are preached. With that said, I believe topical sermon series can be very useful and beneficial for a specific purpose as long as it’s biblical.
So, what counts as a topical sermon? Any time you start with a topic, then find Bible verses that support the point you are making, you have a topical sermon. There are two ways you can go with a topical sermon: one is biblical and one is not. You can keep the verses in the context of what their meaning is, or you can get creative and come up with your own interpretation. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a biblical way of dealing with topical sermons. However, when the majority of your sermons are topical, it is easier to fall into error. Here are some of those errors.
1. Missing the point of the text
When you start off with a point, instead of a text, it’s pretty easy to find verses to fit your point. All you have to do is open up your concordance, find one of the words that you were searching for and, voila, you have a proof text. You can find verses you need to make your point even though the point you are making is often not the point of the verse. This is a problem.
For example, one of the worst passages that is taken out of context is Jeremiah 29:11, “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.” If I was doing a topical sermon on “prospering” this verse would probably pop up first. People read this passage by thinking that God doesn’t want to let anything bad happen to you. Or, God wants to make all your dreams come true, as if God has put the best theology in Disney movies! The context of Jeremiah 29:11 is that the children of Israel would spend 70 years in slavery in Babylon. Not in Israel. God was encouraging them through slavery telling them to accept their position, and that God was still with them even though they were going through difficulty.
2. Skipping troublesome or difficult passages
When you systematically go through a book of the Bible, you will be confronted with difficult passages. These aren’t the passages that make it to the top ten most preached about topics. Some of these passages, although rare, have a hard time finding commentators that agree. For example, if you’re preaching through Genesis, and you come across the Nephilim, it will be very tough to come up with a consensus point on what these creatures are. But, although difficult, people are leaving those sermons realizing that you’ve focused on the Bible and not your opinion.
3.Teaching people an improper hermeneutic of the Bible.
When topical sermons are only preached in a church, people may think that this is how you find God’s truth. If you’re struggling with something, you open the concordance, grab five verses and try to apply them even if they don’t fit. Weird theology develops as a result, and the individual has only learned how to improperly read the Bible. As pastors, our goal should be to give people the tools to read the Bible themselves and see the truth that God intended there to be.
4. Danger of people not relying on the Bible for truth.
It’s easy in topical sermons to rely on humorous stories, anecdotes, and cute illustrations for the meat of a sermon. So, if the pastor isn’t using the Bible heavily in preparing and preaching his sermons, then those who are listening are probably going to do the same thing. If most of what is said is coming from sources outside of the Bible, then the person listening is probably hearing that it’s okay to look outside the Bible for truth for their lives. That is a bad combination.
5. Pressure to come up with cool new marketable series every few months.
A church planter’s time is very valuable. You’re meeting with new people, discipling believers, sharing the Gospel with unbelievers, building ministry teams, balancing family/work life, developing advertising plans, AND preparing a sermon every week on top of all of that. When you preach 4-6 week topical series all the time, that means every month to month and a half, you have to come up with another one. Every series needs good graphics and a catchy slogan. And, that takes time! I love going through photoshop and crafting sermon graphics and logos for a new book or sermon series I’m going through. But, if I’m doing that every month, I’m going to be wearing myself thin. Going through a book of the Bible at a time takes away the need to be more and more creative every sermon series.
6. Becoming biblically illiterate.
Statistics have shown that biblical literacy is at an all time low. Fifty years ago, talking about a Bible story would have instant familiarity in the culture. Now, that’s no longer the case. People do not know about certain stories, histories, or even famous biblical characters. Even famous sayings are often thought to be biblical. For example, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and feed him for life” is a popular saying that many equate to Jesus. The origin is actually a Chinese proverb.
As people get away from hearing and reading the Bible, illiteracy only continues to grow. Instead of trying to come up with a new topical series every month, preach through a book and let the Bible speak for itself.